This book surprised me, which is kind of fun. I didn’t know much about it going in, other than it was about a 40-something British woman and her relationship to the classic George Eliot novel Middlemarch. I expected it to be more of a memoir, perhaps linking certain passages in the novel to single instances in the author’s life. What I found instead is mostly a very well-written, very readable biography of George Eliot herself, with a smattering of memoir and some very insightful literary criticism of the classic thrown in.
Mead first read Middlemarch when she was seventeen, and yearning to leave the bucolic English countryside next of her parents’ making. She wanted culture, museums, an academic, intellectual life, and she was pursuing an Oxford education. Her high school friends were similarly bookish, each with their own favorite classic novel that informed their being, like Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Of those teen years Mead writes,
Books gave us a way to shape ourselves – to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be. They were part of our self-fashioning, no less than our clothes…Though I would not have been able to say so at the time, I sought to identify myself with the kind of intelligence I found in Middlemarch – with its range, its wit, its seriousness, its erudition, its deep feeling… I loved Middlemarch, and I loved being the kind of person who loved it.
But this book is not really much about Mead herself. She travels to Eliot’s former homes (some of which no longer exist, one of which is now a hotel and bar) and travels to libraries to read some of Eliot’s manuscripts and letters, but Mead doesn’t reveal much more about herself as the book progresses. George Eliot is really the star of the show. We see her in her early thirties, living and working in London as a journalist and editor. We see her inspiring true love story of the “middle aged” romance with George Henry Lewes, a man who is married to another woman and whom Eliot does not marry, but spends many happy years with in a committed partnership. We see Eliot assume the role of a caring stepmother to Lewes’ three boys, already teenagers when she and Lewes get together. There’s a fascinating section about a mysterious young Scottish man named Alexander Main, who essentially writes Eliot a fan letter and somehow charms her into a lengthy correspondence. He ends up collecting passages and quotations from her works into a volume he edits called Wise, Witty, and tender Sayings in Prose and Verse, Selected From the Works of George Eliot. Many have portrayed him as a stalker type, wondering how Eliot could have allowed her works to be used in such a manner. Mead explores this question at length in a very sensitive characterization of both Main and Eliot.
I find it interesting that the British version of this book is titled The Road to Middlemarch. It makes Mead’s role in the book seem less front and center. If you’ve read another biography of George Eliot, this book may not hold much new information. Regardless, this is a book-lover’s book. If you’ve not read Middlemarch, or if it’s been years since you’ve read it, I still think you may enjoy this book. (Although if you’ve not read it before, you may want to finish it before you finish this one, as Mead definitely reveals the entire plot.) Her experience of passionately loving a book for all of her life (so far) will likely resonate with you. I very much enjoyed learning more about an author whom I had not before studied in depth. Eliot emerges as a vibrant, kind, idiosyncratic woman, ahead of her time. Perhaps it will inspire you to revisit the novel. Perhaps it will inspire you to question which books have an equivalent hold on you.